The Old Man and the Sea won Ernest Hemingway the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 “for his mastery of the art of narrative”. It’s a bit of a tall order to top that, but Magpie Blue Productions have had a go. The result is not quite Nobel Prize worthy, but it’s an intriguing effort nonetheless.
An atmospheric mist hangs over three desolate figures as the audience enters the auditorium. The Sea (Emily Bevan) wanders casually, rhythmically humming a haunting tune. Before long, The Boy bounces around the stage, narrating stories from the past, his boundless energy an effective contrast to the dignified stasis of The Old Man. Bill Hutchens looks the part as the old man Santiago, magnificently bearded and obsessively transfixed on his goal. His physical exertion and psychological isolation cut to the heart of Hemingway’s novella – the tale of one man’s tired obsession and tragic desperation.
Unfortunately, however, Hemingway’s original text is robbed of its heart by Rob Young’s flippant characterisation of The Sea. She is written with a jaunty and colloquial vernacular that feels at odds with the Old Man’s philosophy. It detracts from his isolation and plight, ultimately nullifying the epic connotations of the simple tale. Emily Bevan gives an entertaining performance, and shows a versatile comedy characterisation, but feels dramatically out of place within the piece. Vernon Kizza Nxumalo also gives a solid, energetic performance as The Boy, and although his youthful enthusiasm is appropriate to the story, his dialogue is too often undermined with colloquialisms: chunks of Hemingway’s poetic narrative being undercut with a concluding throwaway “this is so cool”.
This is a shame, as aspects of Laura Casey’s direction are tantalisingly suggestive of the evocative production that the novella deserves. There are several visually arresting stage images, an effective sound design and moments of ingeniously creative direction that allow an audience to be transported to the beautiful yet dangerous coast. The sea is initially a rhythmic, melodious and soothing presence; the actors creatively manufacture an atmosphere which slowly increases in intensity and volume, eventually mutating into an unsettling and threatening conclusion.
However effective some of these set pieces are, an unfortunately episodic feeling begins to develop. The narrative introduces a number of strands and stories, develops some, but takes most no further – it all becomes slightly confusing and cluttered. At one point, The Sea addresses the audience and demands “could someone please explain the point of that story?” It’s this sort of reliance on concrete, factual evidence that I felt was at odds with the character and style of the Old Man, and by placing this scientific analysis in the mouth of the show’s most forthcoming narrator, the thoughtfulness of Santiago seemed sidelined. Too often, moments of effective abstraction were undermined by explaining them and their relevance, reducing their mystery and intrigue, and reminding us of the limitations of this form compared to the literature.
This adaptation doesn’t quite seem to believe in itself enough to create any real sense of involvement. The audience was often explicitly told the story, and had the emotion explained to them, rather than witnessing or experiencing it. Hemingway’s desolate Old Man is painted to be more human, more normal than the tale demands, and the consistent flippancy of The Sea undermines the achievement and tragedy of his plight. The Old Man and the Sea is ultimately the story of a man that goes out too far – whose reach may exceed his grasp, but who follows through his intention nonetheless. If this production shared the same self belief and steely determination of Santiago, it might have brought home a full bodied marvel, rather than this intriguing yet disappointing skeleton.
The Old Man and the Sea is playing at the Riverside Studios until 27th Feb. Tickets and information available on their website here.